Forensics Science Training & Education

frequent q & a 's

I'm sure this will be a growing page, but here's a start:

Q: What is the difference between a Criminalist, Forensic Technician, Latent Print Examiner, and Investigator? Salary differences?

A:  A criminalist is also referred to as a Forensic Scientist.  A  "Criminalist" is a scientist who applies the principles of primarily biology, physics, and chemistry to evidence analysis (O'Hara & Osterburg).  A criminalist is required to have a bachelor of science degree in biology, chemistry, physics, bio-chem, or similar degree with certain required core science course.  Most criminalists work in a crime lab and do not respond to crime scenes.  They specialize in their area of science but can move throughout different sections of the lab throughout their career.  Extensive mentoring is conducted before one can work on real cases.  Senior criminalists may be involved in crime scene reconstruction, which would require crime scene response.

Forensic Technicians have many titles including Crime Scene Investigator, Crime Scene Specialist, Evidence Technician, Identification Technician and more!  These are the folks who respond to and process crime scenes, victims of crimes (dead and alive), suspects of crimes, vehicles involved in crimes, and all kinds of evidence.  Processing includes photography (very advanced), crime scene diagrams, evidence collection, evidence processing (DNA, trace, fingerprints), evidence packaging, and more.  Sometimes forensic techs analyze bloodstain patterns and conduct bullet trajectory, but these tasks are most often performed by senior criminalists.  Forensic techs do photograph this evidence, however.  The education requirement is an associates degree in forensic technology and internship experience is often preferred.  Depending on the agency, forensic techs can be civilian employees or sworn officers within a crime scene unit.

A latent print examiner is one who identifies a questionable fingerprint to a known fingerprint.  An LPE often requires a bachelor's degree (though a science degree is usually not necessary) and extensive mentoring and on-the-job training.  Many LPE's start their career as forensic techs and some smaller agencies utilize folks who do both jobs.  This is typically a civilian, non-sworn position.

An investigator is a sworn officer who started out in patrol for a required number of years before promoting and being selected as an investigator.  A sworn officer or investigator can make an arrest, detain a person, and interrogate a suspect in a crime.  A forensic tech, LPE, and criminalist cannot (unless they are a sworn officer as well).  An investigator has the primary role in a major criminal case.  Although everyone has a very important role in a criminal investigation, crime lab personnel are support staff for the lead investigator. Ultimately, the lead investigator is responsible for the case - whether good or bad.

Salaries vary throughout the nation & some agencies pay their crime lab personnel better than others.  Most agencies have a 5-step-increase where you get paid more each year until you top out at the 5th step, unless you promote to a higher rank or senior position, then you start at a higher payscale.  Although each agency is different, generally speaking, forensic technicians are paid about the same as a top-step patrol officer or first-level step senior officer or detective.  Latent print examiners are paid at about the top-step detective or first-level step sergeant (which is higher rank than a detective).  Senior Criminalists are paid about the same as top-step sergeants or first-level step lieutenants (which is higher rank than sergeant).  Typically, Criminalists and sworn officers can move up the pay scale through promotions whereas forensic techs and LPE's top out in their pay at the 5th step (usually no promotion opportunity within their job classification).  Crime Lab Managers typically fall in the salary range of top-step lieutenant.  Again, this is general and varies regionally.  Look at job postings in the sites under "resources & links" for an idea of salary per region.

Q: What are typical disqualifications of the background process?  Could a person lie in the background process and get away with it?

A: To have a full understanding of the questions asked in a background process, see the POST website in my resources / links page.  An applicant for a position in a crime lab with a law enforcement agency will have to undergo a backgrounds check and possibly a psychological exam.  The investigator assigned to the background will research the applicant's places of employment, residence, relationships, finances, criminal record, any drug history, and much more.  Agencies are not required to disclose why an applicant fails a background, but here are some common reasons that I'm familiar with:

Lying during the background investigation - automatic failure.

Criminal history - you will not be hired in law enforcement if you have a felony conviction.  

If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend who has a felony record, you probably will fail the background.  Unfortunately, you will probably have to choose between this relationship and your career.

Past illegal drug use - Agencies vary greatly on their policy & procedure on past drug use & some agencies are much more strict than others.  Very generally speaking, this is what I've found when speaking to different background investigators:

Marjiuana use - Must not have used within the past 3-5 years; also depends on number of times used.

Methamphetamine & Cocaine - Some agencies have zero tolerance; others require no use within past 5-7 years; also depends on number of times used.  Methamphetamine permanently destroys brain cells and the more times used, the more permanent the brain damage.  It has been scientifically proven that long-term meth use causes a person to have paranoia and brain scans equivalent to a person with schizophrenia (Young & Ortmeier).

Ecstasy & Heroin - Most agencies have a zero tolerance (actually, I haven't spoken to any background investigator whose agency will allow past use of these drugs). Ecstasy pills can have components of unknown substances.

OxyContin & Over-the-counter (OTC) - Illicit use of these drugs is growing rapidly.  Unsure of policy for hiring.

Extremely poor credit (due to irresponsible behavior) - If you have poor credit due to medical problems, divorce or work lay-off, I recommend that you type out an explanation and provide that to your background investigator.  I also recommend that you get a copy of your credit report and type out an explanation for any negative area of your credit report.  Your background investigator will get a copy of this report so it's good to have an explanation ready.

Also, you MUST clean up your Facebook, MySpace, twitter sites.  Background investigators check these.  Do NOT have  photos of you "partying" or throwing up gang signs.  You will not be hired.  Also, use a professional email and professional voice mail.  It's a big turn-off to a background investigator to listen to a voice mail with gangster rap in the background or to send an email to you if your email address is something like "" or something similar.  Keep it professional!!

Something new that I'm seeing - some students are being failed for not meeting the deadline date to turn in the background packet.  This should never happen to you!  The background packet can take days, even weeks to fill out.  Get a head start by filling out a sample one.  Here's how... Go to:
Click on "Forms"
Select: "Personal History Statement for Peace Officer"
Fill out the form and keep it; transfer the information to future background packets.

Could you get away with lying in the background?  Probably not.  The applicant would typically undergo either a voice stress analysis test or polygraph test; lying is detected with these tests.  Also, keep in mind that your background investigator has probably worked investigations in which hardened criminals such as murderers, drug dealers and gang members have tried to get away with lying but have failed.  You probably aren't as good at lying as a professional criminal; if you are, you shouldn't work in law enforcement.

If you are unsure if you would pass a background with an agency that you are interested in, I recommend that you contact the background unit for that department.  They can't tell you if you would pass for certain, but they could possibly let you know if you would be wasting your time in applying.  The policy and procedure for each department varies.  

 If you fail a background investigation with one agency, that does not mean you won't pass with another agency.  The important thing to remember is to be open, honest, and transparent with the investigator.

Q: What are some tips in getting selected for the 1st interview, 2nd interview, etc, & how can I stand out among all the competition?

A:  The first step is the application.  Make it good.  Study the job posting and write your education, training & experience using words that fits the job posting.  Never lie on your application or resume but you can use words & phrases that fit what the agency is looking for.  I recommend you type, not hand-write applications (download, type, etc).

If selected for the 1st interview, you must stand out because a lot of competition will be weeded out at this step.  Study the agency you are applying with... Know their population, ethnic diversity (# of Hispanic, White, Asian, Black, etc.), know their crime rate, watch / read the news for current events in this area, know their mission statement & fit your values into their statement.  Try to go on a patrol ride-a-long before the interview if you can.  Even if you're applying for a crime lab position, it's very important to understand how patrol units operate for that agency and to have a good relationship with the sworn officers. If you go on a ride-a-long, mention it in the interview! 

Have a portfolio displaying your BEST work and bring it to the interview.  I recommend you find out (via the secretary) how many folks will be on the interview panel and bring that many portfolios.  Then leave the portfolios with them and arrange with the secretary to pick them up later. This will give the interview panel more time to see your work.  Your portfolio should contain a resume, letters of recommendation, certificates (not originals) of training and degrees, good evals from employers, samples of writing (reports), forensic photos (advanced), crime scene diagrams, list or photos of fingerprint processing chemicals you've used, anything else that is relevant to your work & to the job.

After the first interview, talk to the secretary and ask for the name, title and agency name that each interview panelist works for.  Send out "thank you" letters to each interview panelist.  Send it out the same day that you interviewed (i.e. - have the letters ready to go, just need to fill in names, titles & addresses).  A simple, "thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to interview me... I appreciate the opportunity" short & simple.  This is icing on the cake.   The interview panel could be sitting on the fence between you and another person.  You just gave them a reason to pick you.  

Be yourself in an interview but ALWAYS error on the side of professional.  Ice breakers are great, but you really can't plan for them or they don't come off naturally.  A good ice breaker would be if you met a panelist at a conference or heard him/her speak.  As you shake his/her hand, you could say something like, "It was great meeting you at the --- conference this year" or "I heard your talk on --- at the --- conference.  I really enjoyed it".  This shows the panel that you're out there already at professional conferences, trying to learn and network.  If there isn't an icebreaker and you can't think of one, don't try.  Just shake the person's hand (firm but not hard), look them in the eye and say, "It's very nice to meet you" and when you leave, repeat the hand shake and say "Thank you for your time."  That's just fine.

A new trend in getting hired is personal / professional web pages (like this one!)  I created this FREE at  It took me 3-4 hours total to complete it.  The resources / links page was very simple.  I just copy/pasted websites & the face page of that site and the instant link was installed via the template process of this web page.  It was really easy! You can also create very cheap business cards ( is one website for inexpensive business cards).  You could put your own web page and email on your business card and give those cards out at conferences and have the business cards at the interview.  A web page should not replace a resume or a portfolio, but it's a great way to tell others about yourself and display your work!  Keep it very professional!

There are many more tips in getting hired.  Check out my resources / links page for great websites for more help.  Also, talk to people who've gone before you - they can provide tips as well.  Each interview, you do learn a lot.  Although, I always approach an interview not as a learning experience, but as going for a job.  If I don't get the job, then the interview becomes a learning experience.  Good luck!


*a scientist who applies the principles of primarily biology, physics, and chemistry to evidence analysis and is also trained in crime scene investigation and reconstruction.
*a scientist who applies the principles of primarily biology, physics, and chemistry to evidence analysis and is also trained in crime scene investigation and reconstruction.